Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Chicken Collision – Was Everybody Blind?
JTC Farm Hit With FWC $30,260 Mitigation Fee   

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – With blindfolded eyes or a blind eye from Columbia County (The 5); the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD); the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); and JTC Farms, Columbia County's gopher tortoises, a threatened Florida species, were ignored during the land clearing and site prep for the impending JTC Farms chicken factory. Fortunately for the gopher tortoises, nearby residents around the impending JTC Farms operation complained. As a result of those complaints, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) picked up the ball and investigated.

According to FWC, the investigation of JTC Farms in Fort White began on October 29, 2015.

Karen Parker, spokesperson for FWC said that members of the neighborhood "were concerned about water quality and the gopher tortoises."

FWC Disturbed Gopher Mitigation Map                     Click to enlarge

FWC received several leads on the case, but according to Ms. Parker, "None of the leads panned out."

Ms. Parker explained, "That’s another reason FWC wants to keep the case open … on the chance that we receive additional leads."

Ms. Parker continued, "As of today, there are no charges pending on this case."

According to environmental activist, Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson there are witnesses.

Betsy Thomason, who resides near the JTC chicken factory, in her request for an administrative hearing, wrote: "Petitioner(s) have evidence that applicant has violated Florida statutes regarding the Gopher Tortoise, a threatened wildlife species protected by state law, Chapter 68A-27, Florida Administrative Code."

FWC forwarded the Observer the Disturbed Gopher Mitigation Map, along with the following comments. "The map shows the acreage and area of the disturbed site where the chicken farmhouses are being constructed. The map also shows the comparison gopher tortoise survey which was used to estimate the number of tortoises in the disturbed site. The comparison survey was done only in the vegetated buffer surrounding the property."

"The Authorized Agent, Dennis Price, delineated the 11.6-acre disturbed site area by determining where the ground started to increase in elevation due to fill being added. The 11.6-acre disturbed site is only where the fill has been added. Once the permit is issued, it will only cover that 11.6-acre disturbed site. Any additional development or construction outside that 11.6 acres will require a separate relocation permit."

Via email on January 19, Eric Seckinger, FWC Gopher Tortoise Conservation Biologist, sent JTC Farm's Terry Nguyen an email invoice explaining the charges for the Disturbed Site Mitigation:

The invoice for Disturbed Site Conservation Permit Application number C-00038 is $30,260.00.

An estimated 17 gopher tortoises have been impacted in the disturbed area based on the comparison survey of undisturbed areas in adjacent habitat. The mitigation of $30,260.00 is broken down as: ($207 for the first 5 tortoises) + (12*$310 each additional tortoise) + (17*$1,549 additional per tortoise added for a disturbed site) = $30,260.00.

The mitigation amounts can be found here:  http://myfwc.com/media/3062138/GT-Permit-types-mitigation-CPI-adjustment.pdf

The money associated with this permit will go directly to the Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

Please let me know when you have made the payment. Contact me if you have any questions. Thank you.

** According to FWC's spokesperson, JCT farms was advised that they must cease and desist at the site. The mitigation must be paid before any other work can continue.

** As of 3:43 p.m., after a site visit by your reporter, it is reported that all work at JTC Farms had ceased. Absolutely nothing was going on. A couple of workers, who had been standing at the locked gate didn't answer when asked if they knew why there was no work going on. They said they were "waiting to get paid."


The question that everyone continues to answer in the negative is, "How would you like to wake up and find a million chickens in your back yard?" County Commissioner Scarlet Frisina's answer to irate Fort White residents who are being impacted by the JTC Farm Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)* was, "If you don't like it, move." That answer is not acceptable to all that have been impacted by JTC Farms.

The public agencies involved in protecting the public interest have all passed the buck, beginning with The 5 and the popularly elected County Attorney, Joel Foreman, who if he would have required a building permit in between the land classifications of the JTC Farm parcel, the County could have at least saved the gopher tortoises. Everyone knows they are protected. The sign is hanging on the wall in the building department for all to see.

* JTC Farm claimed that because of the way the DEP determined their permit, they are not a CAFO. In an email to DEP, JTC Farm wrote in relevant part: "This determination is very important to us because it clears us from the accusation of INTENSIVE FARMING and CAFO, a rumor that harmed our status in the area."

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On Feb. 5 (posted Feb. 11), F from Fort White wrote:

Anyone who has lived in Fort White for 20 years or more remembers a much different place. The water used to be crystal clear with the bright white Limestone below. Now the water is green and the Limestone covered in green algae due to massive pollution from the huge corporate cattle farms and cement plants. Now the county wants to go forward with something that will clearly due further damage to the health of our rivers and the drinking water of thousands. take the money and run without any thought or care about our drinking water. The question I have for Commissioner Scarlet Frisina is how much is your families drinking water worth, and who will spend tourist dollars in Fort White when the rivers are polluted and dead. Seems to me that this is a losing proposition for us all.


On January 25, a resident from Fort White, wrote:

I have read the stories of this county commission and do appreciate your honesty. About time this DePratter thing about not being able to look at people when spoken to is way too late. He was chastised at the October meeting by a lady for not looking at people when spoken to. His answer was he was taking notes – Yeh right!!!

I will pass the word throughout this forsaken county this regime has to end at this election. Like Obama, Columbia county is becoming the laughing stock of the state.


On January 22, GB from Fort White, FL wrote:

Thank you so much for your coverage of our issue here in Fort White. Sometimes the joy of living in a small town of less than 500 people means you have no voice on the big issues. Thank you for giving us a voice.

I would like to use this voice now to ask this question. If the folks involved in the chicken production ignored the turtles with disregard to their habitat what comfort do we have they will adhere to best practices concerning our water recharge area? As we see now in Flint Michigan bad choices by local and state government can bring irreversible damage to the residents. Seems to me if this chicken production had gone unnoticed by concerned residents it would have little oversight by county or state agencies.


On January 22, Annette Long of Chiefland, FL wrote:

I have been a local water quality activist for the last 15 years.  It is wonderful that the FWCC did what they were supposed to do and addressed the protected habitat of the gopher tortoises.  I am so glad that something happened to slow down the mega-farm in the Ichetucknee watershed as well.  This farm will likely do more chemical nutrient and pesticide loading to the local groundwater--also known as drinking water and spring water--than most of the town of Lake City creates.

If the gopher tortoises were an issue at that farm, what about the gophers on the rest of the tens of thousands of acres in North Central Florida that have been cleared in the last five years?  I drive around the area going to dive sites and have seen thousands of acres of trees fall to irrigated farmland--just from the main highways.  When trees are re-planted it's not likely that the protected tortoises habitat will disappear.  However when the forest is replaced by irrigated crops, hay fields and diary or beef cow grazing the tortoise habitat is gone.  In many cases the gopher tortoises are deliberately buried or killed to make the field level and "safe" for the cows and agriculture equipment.

When gopher tortoise issues have been addressed in the past it was in regards to residential development.  However there has been one case where a public land sale was stopped due to the high density of tortoises on the land that was to be sold and "traded" to become part of an adjacent peanut "mega-farm."

With the billionaires buying up North Florida, deforesting it and turning it into irrigated farms, both the tortoises and the dozen or so other protected species that live in the "gopher holes" with the tortoises will disappear.


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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Site Preparation Activities for Development

Activities that are intended to prepare land for development are not considered bona fide agricultural, silvicultural, and wildlife management, linear utility, or highway right-of-way vegetation maintenance activities. A permit is required for land development activities (including site preparation for such activities) that result in impacts to gopher tortoises or their burrows.(pg 3)

On sites where tortoises are present and burrows (active or inactive) are present, most site preparation activities require a permit. These activities include building construction, bulldozing, paving, clearing, or grading. If work has started without the proper permit, work shall stop on-site until a relocation permit has been obtained and all gopher tortoises have been relocated. If work has begun before a relocation permit is issued or before gopher tortoise relocation is complete, all prior permits may be voided and a Disturbed Site permit may be required. (pg 4)

Permit applications must include tortoise surveys of the entire development, not just infrastructure components. Permits will not be issued solely for proposed infrastructure (e.g., roads and utilities) that are part of a larger common development plan, project, plat, or subdivision. Issued permits must address all burrows to be impacted on the entire project, development, plat, or subdivision site plan (the development footprint). For example, if the entire development footprint impacts more than 10 burrows, such sites will not be eligible (i.e., meet the criteria) for issuance of a 10 or Fewer Burrows permit, even if the infrastructure itself impacts 10 or fewer burrows. (pg 4)

Gopher Tortoise Education Corner